Story: Sewage, water and waste

Page 5. Solid waste

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A century of dumping and burning

In the 1860s solid waste (rubbish) removal and disposal was erratic and inadequate. In addition to household rubbish was the potentially dangerous waste of slaughterhouses, butchers' shops and dairies within the city, and noxious solid-waste industries of all kinds.

Households and businesses were expected to make their own waste-disposal arrangements. Some hired men known as scavengers who carted and deposited rubbish elsewhere – not necessarily hygienically. Men with carts also collected bottles, rags (for making paper) and bones (to be ground up for fertiliser). Many people just let rubbish fester at the back of shops, factories and houses, or put it in the street. When by-laws requiring premises to use private scavenger services proved ineffective, councils began to employ scavengers to clean up streets. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many city councils employed men with horses and carts, who made daily rounds of streets collecting refuse. By the 1930s carts were being replaced by trucks that made weekly collections in most cities, taking household refuse to destructors or tips. Rubbish collectors were often called ‘dusties’, short for dustmen.



Around 1900, when there was a bubonic plague scare, cities paid special attention to uncollected rubbish – especially around harbours – as it was encouraging rat infestations. Bounties were offered for dead rats, and some hotel and shop owners employed rat catchers.


Piles of rubbish

Dumping rubbish in piles within or at the edges of town was no more sanitary than leaving it in informal piles. The Wellington City Council yards on Clyde Quay in the 1880s were unpleasant. Scavengers delivered carts of refuse which householders and businesses had deposited in iron boxes on the streets. It was tipped on the edge of the yards and burned. To try and control the smoke and smell, the council constructed a giant incinerator with twin tall chimneys in 1889. Extended in 1908, it generated enough power to pump sewage to the Moa Point outfall. It closed in 1946. In 1905 Auckland also opted for a destructor as the solution to its solid-waste problem.


Incinerators were expensive, while land was cheap. Most towns opted for tips on their outskirts for industrial and domestic refuse in the 1900s. Some dumps were established on land taken from Māori under the Public Works Act.

By the 1930s rubbish was largely carried in trucks rather than by horse and cart. From the 1950s some of the waste entering these dumps was hazardous, such as agricultural chemicals and other highly toxic substances. There were increasing amounts of non-biodegradable materials. Air was polluted by open-air burning of waste, and waterways were polluted by leachate (liquid chemicals that seep out of tips).

How to cite this page:

Christine Dann, 'Sewage, water and waste - Solid waste', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Christine Dann, published 11 Mar 2010